The newly launched DC Comics website goes beyond the standard model of catalog listings, blog, and message boards to a new vision of the website as a central point for fans to gather to find new things and discuss their favorite characters and comic books. The new website includes sections for comics, movies, TV, games, and collectibles, as well as minisites featuring individual characters. But the chief departure from the old site is the way fans talk back: The message boards are gone, and almost every page of the site allows comments via Facebook. Newly created websites for Vertigo and Mad operate pretty much the same way.
For a better understanding of DC's goals and upcoming plans for the new website, CBR News spoke to Jason James, DC's Vice President of Interactive Marketing, who explained the thinking behind the new site. Brandy Phillips, DC's Director of Publicity, sat in on the conversation and contributed a few comments as well.
CBR News: How does DC expect the new site to change the publisher's relationship with your readers?
Jason James: I am always looking for ways to engage the fans. What I'm really trying to establish here is that we are the one-stop shop, we are the catalog of all things DC Entertainment. I am hoping fans start with us and then if there is an article on Entertainment Weekly about "Man of Steel" or an article on Scott Snyder on CBR, they will go there. Kind of like a trusted source.
I am really looking to create a two-way conversation with fans. Just looking at message boards and commentary on social media sites, it looks like they are dying for it, so I want to put them closer to the site, the company, me, and the talent. If they have questions, I want to make sure we are answering, and we might even ask a question back and keep the conversation going. I really want to know what is going on. I want to know what they are thinking. I am as much of a fan as they are.
I think the final part of it is that I want to mainline that even more in the website. I want the line between the online content we are doing and the fans to start to blur, so they are becoming part of that online content, so if we are asking questions or doing an article about some book -- maybe CBR gave it five stars, some other site gave us five stars -- the fans tell us about it.
DC's message boards had a long history. What was behind the decision to take them down?
James: The message boards tended to be a small, engaged audience. I wanted to cast a net to the wider audience. The message boards tend to be very publishing focused. I want all kinds of fans meeting here and talking about it. Your access to Batman might be the game, Brandy's the movie, mine publishing -- I want the site to be inviting and accessible to all of us so we can have conversations from all our perspectives on what Batman is. I think by shifting from a message board strategy to Facebook it does that and then some.
Are there ways other than Facebook for readers to interact?
James: In the fan section and throughout the modules, we are also injecting our talent Twitter feed. It's kind of a resource to the fans, letting them know where the talent lives on the social media side of things, so if they want to start having conversations with them they can go to those pages. They can go and live in our Facebook fan pages directly with the talent and be in those conversations as well. We are trying to give a lot of options and be very overt about where we live and how broadly you can interact with the talent and everything else.
Will official DC representatives be responding to comments?
James: We are responding. We are definitely having conversations as people are having problems or bugs with the site. The fans are the best QA [quality assurance] guys out there. They have been great about saying "You have a typo here, this isn't rendering for me." A lot of our outbound conversation are, "We are listening, tell us more."
Should fans expect editors or creators to participate in the comments as well?
James: It is something we are definitely looking at. The launch was about making sure we had something that was accessible to all types of fans, and we have accomplished that phase 1. We are just kind of bug proofing it right now. We are making the site very editorial driven as well, so we are looking for opportunities to involve talent where fans can have direct conversations with them for a period of time, exclusive interviews, exclusive content -- there are a a lot of things we have on the docket, and we are making sure we do this in a really smart, able way. I think folks are going to be surprised by the editorial piece we are going to complement the site with.
Brandy Phillips: Jason is thinking about doing an update on how the launch is doing based on fan feedback. You will start hearing from us in a much more editorial voice.
James: It will be a conversation. I know there are a lot of fans who are having problems with, in the comic section, seeing what was available in a given week in a clean, utilitarian sort of way. We listened to that, and we put a fix in place. These are about micro fixes, being sure we are very quick, but keep going until the fans say you got that right.
Will comments be moderated? If so, by whom, and how strictly?
James: We are moderating as we speak. We have a third party involved. This is their subject matter expertise, and they are moderating throughout the day, actively and interactively. We have guidelines in place. I have been very careful to make sure that we draw a line that is fair, that makes sure we maintain the two-way conversation. We are not looking to moderate criticism or something like that. If someone didn't like an issue or what someone did, I want to hear about it. That is what makes the site a place where people live. But if people are abusive -- we have to have the friends and acquaintances kind of standard where you are not going to blast somebody out of the gate, and if you are out of control we are going to take steps to suppress that, because it takes some of the fun out of the site.
Do you think it helps that Facebook requires real names (even though that is not a perfect system)?
James: I think it is a good thing. If I am a fan and I am going to start having a relationship with other fans, I'd rather know their name is Steve than Batman123. I am looking to have an ongoing relationship, and I think that takes care of it, but I also think by going on the record and having your official name, that does make it where you are a little bit more authentic, a little bit [better] behaved. Anonymity can do some funny things.
What about the creators' Twitter stream that appears on many pages -- will you moderate that?
James: We moderate it. We have standards we have discussed with them, and everybody who is ingested in via those modules and Twitter feeds is totally on board with what we are doing.
How will The Source, DC's long-standing blog, figure into all of this?
James: We made some improvements from its predecessor. Under the hood we have done some things to make sure it is more SEO optimized, we are starting to roll out some standards in the way we write things so we move up on the search lists -- just good housekeeping. But additionally, as we editorialize the site you are going to see a lot more output coming from that. In addition to the press releases and the previews, we are talking about a lot more editorial, standard weekly features, interviews, exclusives, not only from the publisher but from around the studio as it relates to entertainment. The other divisions have been great partners in making sure we are making good on the promise.
Phillips: It says a lot that the blog is now front and center on the front page. A lot of the news from the blog will drive what you are seeing on the site.
James: If you look at the way the home page is programmed, we are very interested in a conversational voice. It's not this marketing-speak where we tell you with exclamation points to go buy something. We are telling you why it is cool, why you should try it or share your experience.
You are allowing interaction in almost every area of the website, which is obviously a different dynamic than walling it off into discussion boards. Why did you decide to do that, and again, how do you think it changes the relationship with readers?
James: If people are reacting to anything, if people are reading something in the page and wanting to react to it, we want to encourage that conversation. If they are on a product page for "Batman" #7 and they see something that piques their interest or that they don't agree with, I don't want them to have to go to some other section to dig down and post those feelings or those thoughts. I want it to be very mainline in the site so the appropriate conversation is kind of amassing in the appropriate places. In one respect it is about immediate gratification, so they can keep their experience kind of mainline to what they are doing, but then it's also about the usability standpoint, and that there is a very one-to-one relationship in the content: "Batman" #7 and then the conversation about "Batman" #7.
Are you thinking of any joint marketing opportunities, such as having the "Buy in Print" button take the reader to a particular online store rather than to Diamond's Comic Shop Locator?
James: We put a lot of thought into those buy buttons to make sure they could scale up. You are seeing one option when you roll over those "Buys." That menu is able to expand as we set up new partnerships and new relationships. There are two buttons that can appear, so if the book is already out in print, we give the options to buy it in print; if you can buy it digtally, another button comes up with options for how to buy via that channel as well. We have the DC app, the Vertigo app, and as we have conversations with retailers, you could see those lists start to expand, so if your store of choice is something you can go buy there, and if Brandy's is different, then she can go there.
Do you plan to expand the character bios?
James: We do have plans to expand them to keep adding more and more characters. With the ones we do currently have on the site, we rewrote them with the eye that they were talking about the core essence of what that character was, so we are accessible to all types of fans. We will start to expand on those as well. I can see it being the core essence of the character and then Superman in the movies, Superman on the radio, the full breadth of where this character has lived in the decades they have been around.
And I think in doing that we will start to make recommendations or talk about different storylines and things like that. The big example I always use is with the "Dark Knight" trilogy that the Nolans are doing. It was even surprising to me during the DVD extras, [to hear] somebody in one of the shots talking about the trilogy being inspired by three storylines from the book, talking to the movie fans and the book fans at the same time: The movie is coming out, if you want to decode it, it is based on these three books, so you may want to read them before you see the movie. Show the connective tissue, the inspirations -- it all kind of cross-pollinates itself.
Is this the home base for the movies and TV shows as well, or a comics site that also includes movies and TV shows?
James: More the latter. We are like the catalog. If you would rather go to the "Dark Knight Rises" theatrical site, you can do that, but if you want to know all the places where Batman lives, we can do that. Even if it is something we don't have direct control over, like an Entertainment Weekly article, we are showing you the different places, It's a fan resource, and by "fan," I mean all fans.
How do you expect the site to evolve in the near future -- and the distant future, for that matter?
James: I'm going to keep some of my Coca-Cola formula secret until I roll out the road map. I am a big fan of micro updates. It would be a huge disservice to the site if we launched it and never touched it again. The digital space moves so fast, you have to be constantly tweaking your site. We will continue to tweak it so we are living where the fans want to live. We will continue to offer more editorial content on the site. We will be looking for opportunities and ways as it evolves to continue to the two-way conversation.
This is just the beginning. We are very particularly interested in how do we keep being the one stop shop for fans to share their experience with and how do we improve the two-way conversation.